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A Year On, States Aren’t Enforcing The Landmark Arms Trade Treaty

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By Rachel Stohl: 

Keeping weapons out of the wrong hands is good policy. In the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, heightened attention has been paid to the illegal black-market networks that often arm terror groups and stoke conflict around the world. But the international community is not helpless to prevent this uncontrolled arms trade. A year ago on Christmas Eve, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) entered into force, with 130 countries signing on and, at the time, 61 of them ratifying it. One year later, 76 states are party to the treaty.

The ATT is the only global, legally binding treaty to curb the irresponsible and largely unregulated international arms trade. It was established with the intent to increase transparency in the global arms trade, promote more responsible arms transfers, and keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists and human rights abusers. Yet only one year later, the treaty is at risk of not living up to its potential.

The ATT created rules for the estimated $85 billion annual trade in arms, requiring countries to better attend to the risk that weapons may fall into the wrong hands and be used to commit abhorrent crimes. The treaty prohibits some arms transfers, namely those that would violate U.N. Security Council embargoes or be used “in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes.” The ATT also created specific government obligations to consider when making arms transfer decisions, such as whether the weapons would contribute to violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, or be used to commit gender-based violence.

Yet the global arms trade thrived in 2015. Calls for increased military action and assistance, especially in the Middle East, prompted more weapons to flow to ever more hands—even to questionable recipients with potentially dangerous uses. For example, in the past month the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands—all parties to the treaty—have been criticized for their continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in the air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Saudi-led airstrikes there have repeatedly struck populated areas, resulting in mounting civilian casualties. 

Indeed, earlier this month, a group of international law experts found that the U.K. was violating national, European Union and international law and policy by supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia to use in their military campaign in Yemen. The United States, which as an ATT signatory is bound not to undermine the treaty’s provisions, has also faced mounting pressure for its continued and increased sales to Riyadh. Congress recently, and for the first time, invoked new oversight powers over future Saudi sales amid concerns that weapons are being used indiscriminately.

However, the recent developments in the United States are an exception rather than the norm. Only in countries that already have transparent reporting is even the most basic information on arms transfers made available, including such seemingly innocuous information as the legislation and rules governing a country’s arms trade system. While the need for increased transparency and accountability within the global arms trade served as an impetus for the development of the ATT, a continued pattern of secrecy could allow governments and nefarious actors to still sell arms with impunity.

The ATT sought to overcome this challenge by requiring countries to report on measures taken to implement the provisions of the treaty, as well as on their annual arms exports and imports. States are required to submit an initial report on ATT implementation within one year of entering into the treaty, in order to provide a baseline for monitoring its progress. For more than 60 governments, that meant last Wednesday, Dec. 23. States’ annual reports on arms exports and imports would allow for greater understanding and a broader, global picture of the international arms trade. At least that was what was supposed to happen.

Yet at the ATT’s first Conference of States Parties, held last summer in Mexico, governments did not adopt reporting templates for these two key reports. Instead, governments are free to submit their information in whatever form they would like. In other words, they can choose the criteria to include for their own report card. Thus, the reports will likely be neither comprehensive nor consistent, with individual governments deciding what information to provide and how to provide it. This also means that it will likely be difficult to compare reports and understand gaps or needs in implementation, or identify worrisome arms build-ups.

The current threat environment, particularly in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, from the self-proclaimed Islamic State should not give license to sending more weapons to more countries without safeguards or care for civilian lives. Governments should not turn their backs on the principles and values that led to the ATT’s negotiation and adoption. They should not abandon the purpose of the ATT now—particularly as countries continue to provide more arms to actors in riskier environments in attempts to address short-term security concerns, without giving enough attention to longer-term implications and potential challenges brought on by such arms transfers. The arms transfers to countries fighting in Yemen are a perfect example. By preventing weapons from falling into the wrong hands, international and domestic security will actually be strengthened.

Any treaty can only be as strong as the political will behind it, and the ATT is no exception. Now is the time to demonstrate that the treaty is more than just words on paper. It is time for governments to prove their commitment and adhere not only to the letter, but to the purpose and principles of the Arms Trade Treaty.

Rachel Stohl is senior associate with the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative at the Stimson Center. She served as consultant to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty process.

This piece originally ran in World Politics Review, December 29th, 2015

Photo credit: Control Arms via flickr

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